By Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…

***********************************************

Some poets – Hopkins… Emily Dickinson comes to mind – have an insane concision and obliqueness, a madly packed brevity. Many of their poems have the compression of black hole events. The reader stands at the tongue of the event, leaning over gingerly, having a bit of a look, afraid of the pull.

Sometimes vagueness is euphemism, designed to keep things innocuous; here, the big abstractions – time, light, world – attach themselves to an unsettling sensibility and feel treacherous.

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:

Not This particular winter season, with the days growing shorter, I find myself thinking of death. Rather a general proposition about reality: The times ARE nightfall. The condition of life generally is that of motion toward darkness, a cosmic wintering that undoes all the life in the world. Look; watch. The monosyllabic imperatives in each line aren’t just the poet talking to himself — they gather you into the blackening. You are invited to see and feel it too.

They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.

The passage of time is itself pernicious; it creates a darkness against which our disintegration stands out — is blazoned — with frightening clarity.

And I not help.

There’s something infantile about this sentence without a verb, or with so suppressed a verb it seems verbless. The times don’t help me? Is that what it means to say? And I myself am without help in the killing night?

The poem will indeed go on to wonder what might help the poet, and the reader, navigate and survive darkness:

Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Hopkins is famous for his wordplay, and here you see it — the subtle transformations from word to wreck to rescue to work — all words somehow linguistically as well as psychically related, all somehow fated to follow one another down the line of the poet’s sad, raveled, thought. The weird convolution of the language conveys the weird blocked consciousness of the poet, able only to pace round and round his particular black hole. He dreams of work completed, not scarce so much as begun, and wonders, given how little he’s been able to do with his life, given how paltry his efforts to evade nothingness have been, whether suicide wouldn’t make sense.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…

He ends with a ray of hope. There is one option: the same mind that torments you might, if able to marshal its forces, rid the dragons (a nice companion to blazon) from it. We are powerless against the blizzards outside, against the cold climate of the times, but we do rule the hearth of our own minds. Or we can rule it — the poet in these final lines seems to encourage himself toward self-rule. The sudden break with the poem’s tight rhyme scheme – that small commonweal rhymes with nothing that came before it – seems a gesture toward willfulness, toward independence of mind.

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5 Responses to “A Cold Poem on a Cold Day.”

  1. RJO Says:

    > a madly packed brevity. Many of their poems have the compression of black hole events. The reader stands at the tongue of the event, leaning over gingerly, having a bit of a look, afraid of the pull.

    An excellent metaphor. Save it and reuse it. In Certified Scientist lingo I’d say, “approach the compression of black holes, and the reader stands at the event horizon…” And so here’s Emily Dickinson, as you suggest, hallucinating in the space next to the black hole, and then falling past the event horizon into the singularity:

    Then Space – began to toll,

    As all the Heavens were a Bell,
    And Being, but an Ear,
    And I, and Silence, some strange Race
    Wrecked, solitary, here –

    And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
    And I dropped down, and down –
    And hit a World, at every plunge,
    And Finished knowing – then –

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Lovely, RJO.

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